Kosovo, NATO Intervention

Kosovo, NATO Intervention


Operation Allied Force, the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) action in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo in 1999, marked the first time the organization actually undertook a large-scale troop mobilization. Sparked by genocidal acts on the part of the Serb-dominated Yugoslavian government against ethnic Albanians, the 78-day operation was launched on March 24, 1999. It proved a success, restoring peace to Kosovo and helping to set in motion events that brought about the downfall of Yugoslavia's president, Slobodan Milosevic, 16 months later. Of perhaps even greater significance, it illustrated NATO's capability to fulfill the peacekeeping mission for which it had been established 50 years earlier.

Prelude to war. The symbolic significance of Kosovo loomed large in the worldview of Serbian nationalism. It was there, on June 28, 1389, that Serbian armies had lost to the Ottoman Turks, an event lodged in the Serbian consciousness comparable to Pearl Harbor in that of Americans. When Serbian student Gavrilo Princip shot the visiting Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo on June 28, 1914—the event that launched Europe into World War I—the choice of date was no accident.

Exactly 75 years later, June 28, 1989, marked a key date in the transition from Yugoslav communism to Serbian nationalism. On the 600th anniversary of the battle, Milosevic—a Communist party leader in the Yugoslav federation—spoke at commemoration ceremonies, where he announced that "After six centuries, we are again engaged in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, but this cannot be excluded yet." This met with a roar of approval from the mostly Serbian crowd.

Milosevic's wars. In 1991, Milosevic became president of Serbia, and over the following years conducted campaigns of "ethnic cleansing" (elimination, through killing or forced deportation, of non-Serb populations) against Bosnia and Croatia. These led to the first airstrikes in NATO history, in April 1994, against Bosnian Serbs. Further airstrikes, combined with Croat and Bosnian ground offenses, finally brought Milosevic to the bargaining table, and on November 21, 1995, the Dayton Accords ended the war in Bosnia.

Then, in 1996, the Serb army engaged in its first battles with the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and over the next three years, hostilities continued to escalate. In retaliation for KLA attacks on four policemen, Serb forces on January 15, 1999, killed 45 ethnic Albanians in the town of Racak. The weeks that followed saw repeated attempts at negotiation by officials of the Clinton administration, as well as NATO, the United Nations, and the international Kosovo Verification Mission. All attempts to settle the crisis failed.

NATO attack begins. During this time, U.S. attention was primarily focused on the impeachment trial of President William J. Clinton, but when the Senate acquitted him on February 12, Clinton turned his attention to Kosovo and announced plans to deploy 4,000 U.S. peacekeepers. By mid-March, peace talks in Paris had failed, and on March 20, Westerners began to evacuate the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade.

The air war began on March 24, even as Serb forces continued to wage a ground war against ethnic Albanians. On the first night of bombing, NATO warplanes destroyed some 40 targets. In the wake of the attacks and the Serb reprisals that followed, some 800,000 Kosovar Albanians fled the region.

Operation Allied Force. In the weeks that followed, the United States faced a number of diplomatic battles with Russia and China, both of which supported Serbia. Initially, Russian president Boris Yeltsin took a hard-line stance with the West, but a change of special envoys to the Balkans in mid-April signaled an attempt to mend relations. The war spread into Albania with the deployment of 24 Apache attack helicopters and 2,000 troops there on April 4. Two days later, NATO missiles misfired, and hit a neighborhood in the mining town of Aleksinac.

Ironically, it was during the Kosovo war that NATO celebrated its 50th anniversary, in Washington, D.C., on April 22. Meanwhile, the war—both of words and armaments—continued. On May 5, NATO experienced its first casualties when two U.S. soldiers were killed in a non-combat helicopter accident, and on May 8, NATO forces accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese personnel. Though the Chinese claimed that the attack was no accident, after several tense days they accepted an apology.

Conclusion and aftermath. On May 27, the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, announced an indictment against Milosevic and four other Yugoslav leaders for war crimes in Kosovo. NATO bombers continued to pound Kosovo, and on June 10, 1999, UN secretary-general Javier Solana announced an end to hostilities. Two days later, in a move that surprised Western forces, Russian troops entered Kosovo to take control of the airport at Pristina.

As the Albanians returned in the wake of the NATO victory, some 200,000 Serbs fled. Though outbreaks of ethnic violence continued—most of them reprisals by empowered Albanian nationalists against Serbs—the presence of NATO troops ensured order. Many members of the UCK, the Albanian insurgent army, joined the official Kosovo Protection Force as U.S.-funded efforts began to rebuild houses for some 300,000 people rendered homeless by the bombing. Kosovo-wide elections in October 2000 placed the moderate Democratic League, led by Ibrahim Rugova, in power.

The Serbs evicted from Kosovo descended on Serbia, where they proved a thorn in Milosevic's side. Joined by frustrated soldiers and their families, they conducted a series of protests against the president, and Milosevic responded by calling for early elections—an act that would prove his undoing. When he changed the election laws to benefit himself and attempted to falsify the outcome, this proved too much for the Yugoslav people, who ousted him. The newly elected government transferred him to The Hague to stand trial for war crimes in June 2001.



Clark, Wesley K. Waging Modern War: Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Future of Combat. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Judah, Tim. Kosovo: War and Revenge. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.

Malcolm, Noel. Kosovo: A Short History. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Power, Samantha. A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. New York: Basic Books, 2002.


A Kosovo Chronology. Frontline: War in Europe. Public Broadcasting System. < http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/kosovo/etc/cron.html > (April 7, 2003).

Focus on Kosovo. Cable News Network. < http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/1998/10/kosovo/ > (April 7, 2003).

NATO and Yugoslavia. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. < http://www.rferl.org/nca/special/nato-kosovo/ > (April 7, 2003).


Clinton Administration (1993-2001), United States National Security Policy
Cold War (1972-1989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
European Union
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)
Serbia, Intelligence and Security
United Nations Security Council

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